For Israeli backpackers, Thailand–geographically and culturally remote from Israel–offers an escape from the tensions of home. By association, that has sadly come to mean anything Jewish.
And yet, thousands of miles away from a homeland where synagogues and yeshivas are as indigenous to the terrain as olive groves, these young men and women who had previously shied away from all religious affiliation, were looking to connect.
Call it the strife of the spirit. Rabbi Yosef Kantor, Chabad representative to Thailand, sees it as the pull of the Jewish soul that defies explanation: with approach of Rosh Hashana, it seemed every Jew in Thailand wanted to be in a Shul. Anticipating this from years past, Rabbi Kantor arranged for 10 rabbinical students from abroad to set up Rosh Hashana services in four locations, at which thousands of Jews participated.
“With the start of the New Year, it is important for Jews to feel that the despite the disagreements that are a cause of so much discord in Israel, we are all part of one unified people. This is the message we try to impart to residents and tourists alike,” says Rabbi Kantor.
In Chiang Mai, the rabbinical students worked with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Tzeitlin and his wife–new Chabad-Lubavitch representatives here, organizing services for several hundred Jews. Five hundred participated at the services they set up on the southern island of Koh Samui, and in Bangkok Chabad representatives Rabbis Kantor and Wilhelm conducted two respective services to accommodate 1,500 Jews who wanted to pray. At each location, a festive meal with singing and discussions followed services, prompting many to return to Chabad on the following day of Rosh Hashana.
“Every Jew had where to turn to this Rosh Hashana. They were able to come and get a taste of holiness,” says Peleg Moscowitz, a native of Israel who moved to Thailand fifteen years ago. According to Peleg, himself a previously unaffiliated Jew whose life was “completely transformed” by Chabad in Thailand, it was the sincerity of Chabad and their message that was so compelling. “The dedication of these young men and women who travel all this way to help others is enough to spark an interest in even the most secularized Jew.”
Rabbi Kantor and his family have been serving Bangkok’s Jewish community of 300 since 1992. Seven years ago, Rabbi Nechemiah Wilhelm and his wife joined the Kantors. Today, kosher food is available, a full range of Torah study classes, a well-attended school and summer camp, and three synagogues in Bangkok alone are all part of a Jewish infrastructure that has made living Jewishly in Thailand altogether plausible.
And for the one hundred thousand Israelis who come through Thailand each year, Chabad has become more than just a community center. Unexpectedly, it is here that they learn to look past the negative stereotyping they’ve absorbed in Israel, venturing to try mitzvot, study Torah and learn more about themselves.